In April 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said publicly that Canadian military officials do not send individuals off to be tortured. That was indeed our policy. But behind the military’s wall of secrecy, that unfortunately is exactly what we were doing.
— Richard Colvin, November 2009
Propaganda. Character assassination. Censorship.
The tools of dictators and despots have been pressed into service by the Conservatives since a special parliamentary committee began investigating what they knew and when about allegations of Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees in 2006-07.
The primary target of the Conservative’s smear campaign has been Richard Colvin, Canada’s No. 2 diplomat in Afghanistan at that time.
He was summoned to appear before the committee in November after federal lawyers blocked him from appearing before the Military Police Complaints Commission inquiry, which was also attempting to examine the detainee issue.
Colvin testified that Canada’s detainee practices in Afghanistan were “unCanadian, counterproductive and probably illegal,” under the Geneva Conventions.
It defines transfer to torture as a war crime.
Since Colvin’s appearance, the Conservatives have rallied MPs, military officials, senior diplomats and columnists to demonize the 15-year veteran of the foreign service. Rather than address the issues raised by Colvin’s testimony, the Conservatives and their allies have cast Colvin in the role of the enemy, an unpatriotic patsy of the Taliban intent on spreading ludicrous allegations about the conduct of Canadian troops.
Those attacks prompted unprecedented backlash from 95 former Canadian ambassadors. They signed an open letter warning the affair risked “creating a climate in which officers may be more inclined to report what they believe headquarters wants to hear, rather than facts and perceptions deemed unpalatable.”
Not content to destroy Colvin’s reputation, the Conservatives sought to demonize the opposition parties by suggesting that their investigation was tantamount to accusing Canadian soldiers of committing war crimes.
The Tories mix of flag-waving and claims of intentional sabotage by the opposition parties is particularly insulting since it’s coming from Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself.
Stories of bloody beatings with frayed power cables, extrajudicial killings and disappearances would shock and anger Canadians if they were not so commonplace in this post-Sept. 11 world.
We are already familiar with the allegations levelled by Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin and Abousfian Abdelrazik upon their return to Canadian soil.
The detainee issue appears to be Canadian complicity on an entirely different scale.
The Conservatives, in keeping with their penchant for the selective presentation of facts, have declined to say how many detainees were transferred to Afghan authorities. But a report in Maclean’s suggests the figure could be as high as 600.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile the Conservative’s repeated claims that “there is not a single, proven allegation” of detainee abuse prior to 2007 with the mounting evidence to the contrary trickling out of the committee’s hearings.
That includes the Conservative government’s use of censorship and national security legislation to bar opposition parties from accessing thousand of pages of documents related to the detainee controversy; warnings from the International Red Cross, which made a point of raising the issue of detainee treatment with Canadian officials even though its mandate prohibits such interference; and now testimony from the country’s top general.
Gen. Walt Natynczyk’s about-face on the detention, transfer and beating of a detainee by Afghan police in June 2006 shredded whatever credibility the Conservatives had left on the detainee issue.
The Conservatives have been resisting calls for a public inquiry into the detainee issue, but Natynczyk’s testimony leaves them with little choice but to call one to salvage Canada’s values and its reputation abroad.
The Conservatives are counting on Canadians to forget about the committee’s investigation during the Christmas break.
For our sake — and the sake of up to 600 detainees who may have been abused or tortured — Canadians must prove them wrong.
Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.